Equal access to employment is not only crucial to an individual’s independence and self-worth but is a legally protected right. When there is a barrier to employment or job performance that is created by a disability, employers can lower or remove that barrier by providing reasonable accommodation to the employee. As seasoned employment lawyers, we often see cases where employers have failed to make even the most simple, logical, and fair reasonable accommodations for their employees.
What is a Reasonable Accommodation?
A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment or change to some part of the job, work environment, or hiring process. These modifications are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and they enable individuals with disabilities to have equal opportunities at work and to perform the duties of their jobs.
What are Commonly Requested Accommodations?
While every individual is different and will be best accommodated based on their disability, job tasks, and preferences, there are some common requests. These include accessible parking for employees who cannot walk or traverse long distances, computer software for people with visual impairments, ergonomic desks or chairs for workers with back problems, or flexible scheduling to account for a variety of needs.
Telework and flexible work schedules are common because of the wide range of disabilities that can be accommodated with this type of change.
Reassignment to a new position within the company is also sometimes appropriate. The existence of a disability does not make an employee any less valuable. Allowing a worker to transfer from one job that they can no longer perform to a position in which they can excel is beneficial for everyone.
How do Accommodations Work for Mental Health Conditions?
Oftentimes, discussions involving reasonable accommodations are focused on physical disabilities and impairments. But employees with mental health conditions that qualify for disability status under the ADA are also protected.
There are things that employers can do to improve working conditions for people with mental health disabilities. Such accommodations can include:
- Alternative communication methods;
- Telework or other flexible work schedules;
- Extended or increased breaks;
- Liberal sick leave;
- Workstation relocation to allow for privacy or noise reduction; and
- Technology and tools to assist with organization and notetaking.
The most helpful accommodations are not a one-size-fits-all type of solution. Each employee will have different needs to be met and should be consulted so the best options can be implemented.
Which Employers are Required to Provide Reasonable Accommodations?
The ADA requires an employer with at least 15 employees to comply with the regulations governing reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Government agencies and other public institutions can sometimes be held to different standards. Employers are not always required to provide an accommodation in every situation.
How do These Laws Affect Job Applicants?
Job seekers and candidates are included in the ADA’s protections. While employers are generally prohibited from asking if someone has a disability, there are some exceptions. If the job candidate offers information about their disability, the employer may discuss reasonable accommodations. This is also true in most situations where a disability is obvious.
Reasonable accommodations must be provided to qualified applicants that will allow them to have an equal opportunity to apply for the job.
Why do Employers Deny Reasonable Accommodation Requests?
One explanation for why an employer might deny a reasonable accommodation request is that the requesting employee does not have a qualifying disability or has not provided the required documentation to prove the existence of such a disability. The employer may also insist that the employee is able to perform the essential functions of the job without an accommodation, or that the requested accommodation would not improve the worker’s ability to perform their job.
Requests that remove an essential function of the job are unreasonable.
If providing the requested accommodation would cause an undue hardship, employers are not required to implement the request. This means that accommodating the employee would be too expensive, disruptive, or wide-ranging, or would change the way the business operates. A simple assumption or broad statement that it cannot be done is not usually sufficient.
An assessment must be completed, and specific details should be included, such as:
- The type and cost of the accommodation;
- The expenses associated with implementing the requested changes;
- The financial resources, size, and number employees at the company; and
- The impact the accommodation would have on the operation of the business.
If cost is the only contributing factor to the denial of the accommodation, the employer should look to outside sources that can assist with implementing the request. The employee may also be given the opportunity to assist with the associated costs.
Whenever possible, alternative accommodations should be considered. If there is a secondary option that would not cause an undue hardship, then that option must be pursued and provided instead.
What if No Undue Hardship Exists but the Request is Denied?
The EEOC looks for a number of things when investigating the denial of a reasonable accommodation request. The following questions are usually asked:
- Was an accommodation actually requested?
- Was the employee otherwise qualified for the job?
- Was a different accommodation offered?
- Could a different accommodation have been effective?
This process is complex, stressful, and time-consuming, but investigators attempt to find out if the denial was warranted or if an employee’s rights were violated.
What Other Mistakes Can Employers Make During the Process?
There are many ways that employers can make mistakes during the reasonable accommodation process. Documentation errors are common, as are delayed responses. There is no required period of time to provide an accommodation, but delays could lead to trouble, and requests should be processed as quickly as possible. Not being actively involved in the discussions is another area of potential difficulty. Employers and employees must participate in conversations about accommodations, and if the employer is absent or uninvolved, this could cause problems.
How is a Reasonable Accommodation Request Started?
Because employers are only required to provide an accommodation for a disability if they are aware of it, workers usually must request accommodation to begin the interactive process.
When disclosing the information to a supervisor or human resources department, a statement must be included that explains what sort of difficulty is occurring with performing a certain area or task of the job. It is important to connect the request for help to a physical or mental impairment.
It may be necessary to provide medical information or documentation if the reason for the difficulty is not immediately obvious or easily noticeable. Documentation of the disability from a doctor or other medical facility will usually suffice.
Once the employer and employee have decided upon an effective reasonable accommodation, a plan should be made to put the changes into effect. Everyone involved should also keep a detailed record of dates, actions taken, and details discussed to ensure accurate documentation of the process exists.